An Anecdotal History of Czech Immigrant Herbert Hnilica

An Anecdotal History of Czech Immigrant Herbert Hnilica

Mar 16, 2017

by Paula Hughart | No. 181, Seattle, WA

Herbert Hnilica as a young man.

In 1921, my grandfather Herbert* Hnilica traveled from Kyjov (Gaya) Czechoslovakia to Hamburg, Germany en route to his final destination of Aberdeen, WA, United States. He was 27 years old.

A family account written by Vaclav Hnilica (Herbert’s father) and completed by Hubert’s brother, Bohdan (Dorek) Hnilica states that after World War I, the Hnilica family in Kyjov received a letter from Herbert’s sister, Marie Hnilica Svisek (Svrsek). Marie had immigrated to Aberdeen, WA in 1914. She wrote that they had survived the war. She invited the rest of her siblings to America where they could earn a better living. In 1920, Herbert’s brother, Jan, left for the USA and in 1921, Herbert also left Kyjov for America. Unfortunately, the remaining sibling, Bohdan, was unable to join his sister and brothers in Aberdeen as he had to serve his army duty. By the time he had completed his service, exit visas to the United States were no longer being issued.

On March 11, 1921, Herbert Hnilica departed from Hamburg on the SS Mount Clay. The port of arrival was to be New York, but actually docked in Boston on March 23, 1921.

Herbert told stories about how once docked, people on board would throw a handkerchief with coins in it down to fruit vendors on the dock. The vendors would then wrap a grapefruit in the handkerchief and throw it up to the shipboard customer. He also recounted his indignation at having his clothes fumigated in Boston. Apparently, it ruined his suit.

In Hamburg, Herbert Hnilica was approached by a stranger who had overheard him speaking in Czech. The man was there with a young girl (probably a niece or other family member) who was travelling alone to rejoin her family in the American Midwest. The stranger asked Hubert to take charge of the girl on the voyage and he did!
Herbert liked to tell how the girl was from the country and had never tasted ice cream or seen a movie. While waiting in Hamburg for the ship to depart, they went for ice cream and also saw a movie. The girl told him that the ice cream was very good.

He and the girl made it to a railroad station in the USA and travelled west. The girl got off the train to join her family in the Midwest and Herbert continued on to Aberdeen, WA to join his family. In later life, he regretted not keeping up with her and always wondered what had become of her.

Herbert arrived safely in Aberdeen and was reunited with his brother Jan, sister Marie, her husband Fred, and new baby daughter, Mildred. He had his first name legally changed to Herbert.

Herbert went to work the next day. He had trained as a painter in the old country. He earned his living in that occupation until his retirement at age 65.

Within a year, Herbert invited Anna Hrkalava of Prague to join him in America and be married. They had met at a dance in Prague where he had been stationed with the Czech Army. You might say that he had to do double duty as he had already served in the Austro-Hungarian Army during World War I. Anna accepted the proposal and traveled to the United States via Cherbourg on the SS Aquitania. She arrived in New York on October 20, 1922.

Years later when asked why he had come to America, he told me that he wanted a car and he would not have been able to get one in the old country.

His plan was to stay in Aberdeen a few years and return to Czechoslovakia. Grandpa thought Aberdeen was an unattractive town with its “houses on sticks." Nevertheless, he stayed in Aberdeen and raised a family.

Later, he moved to Olympia, WA and lived with his daughter until his death in 1990 at age 96.

Herbert and Anna Hnilica had a family of two children, Herbert, Jr. and Agnes Louise. All things considered, they had a good life in America. The family survived the Great Depression suffering no terrible hardships. Their son, Herbert Jr., came back safely from World War II after having been stationed in Europe. The family was able to own a home, work, and had enough to eat. Herbert even realized his dream of owning a car!

Writer Paula Hughart, of Seattle No. 181, Seattle, WA, is the granddaughter of Hubert Hnilica. She was inspired to write this article after attending a presentation by Rebekka Geitner titled "Ballinstadt - Hamburg Emigration Museum" at the Czechoslovak Genealogical Society International conference in St. Louis, 2011. As a result, she wrote this account and it was included in the immigrant stories at the Hamburg Museum.

Herbert Hnilica and his wife Anna, along with their children, were members of Lodge No. 264. Lodge No. 264 merged with Lodge No. 181 in 1980.

*Herbert is used throughout the article, although his first name was Hubert until his name was changed during immigration to the United States.

Category: Czech Connection

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